Skip to main content
Skip to main content

ENGL759C Seminar in Literature and the Other Arts: Book Lab: How to do Things with Books

Since the 1980s, it has been a commonplace to refer to the “materiality” of a literary text as a foil for both New Critical approaches (the text as a “well-wrought urn” or “verbal icon”) as well as deconstruction and poststructuralism (the text as a linguistic field of différance, or jouissance).

By aligning the interests of bibliography and textual criticism with the New Historicism then coming into vogue, textual scholars were able to restore attention to the social and physical dimensions of literary works, their material incarnations as the product of human hands and human labor. These developments coincided with the increased role of computers in literary studies, which offered a technological means for focalizing this attention on materiality; and more recently, there are interesting and largely unexplored resonances with the new materialism, thing theory, and so-called object-oriented ontology.

The course is intended to be broadly relevant to students working in all literary periods, from the early modern to the contemporary. It will be divided into three segments. For the first third, we will flesh out the preceding disciplinary history with readings from key figures in textual studies, book history, and print culture. Robert Darnton, Johanna Drucker, Elizabeth Eisenstein, Adrian Johns, Jerome McGann, and D. F. McKenzie will all make their appearance, among others such as Jane Bennett and N. Katherine Hayles. The next third of the course will look closely at work by a newer (and more diverse) cohort, devoting particular attention to those for whom textual materialities are intersectional with regard to various feminisms, critical race studies, indigenous studies, and queer theory. Candidates here include Lisa Maruca, Jeffrey Masten, Kinohi Nishikawa, Kate Ozmet, Jessica Pressman, Jonathan Senchyne, Derrick Spires, and Sarah Werner, to name just a few. Throughout, we will also take advantage of access to high-quality digital resources to amplify our readings and evaluate archival evidence for ourselves; crucially, the digital will not be treated as a convenience or a concession, but instead as an active agent in the ongoing “transformission” (to use Randall McLeod’s portmanteau) of the text.

The last third of the course will operate as a writing workshop, with the default objective being a full-length draft of a conference paper (approximately 3000 words) by the end of the semester; other formats, such as a descriptive bibliography or a collation or even a modest digital project will also be possible. Participants are strongly encouraged to think ahead to a specific material textual object around which to organize their writing in the last phase of the course: a manuscript or edition or copy, or some other physical instantiation of a text that is of interest to them in their studies. This will be the application of our reading.

Other activities throughout the semester will include discussion board postings, class presentations, and participation, including in remote scholarly sessions organized elsewhere.

Note: Because it is unlikely we will be able to hold in-person classes in the spring, this course has been imagined as part of a two-course BookLab sequence. Here, in the first offering in Spring 2021, the emphasis will be on readings in the field of material textuality. By Spring 2022, BookLab will have returned to its physical space on campus; the emphasis of the second course will be hands-on work with printing and bookmaking, and explorations in DC-area libraries and archives. While this course is not a prerequisite for the one to follow—it is a standalone offering, and you are welcome to treat it as such—students interested in pursuing further work in book history, print culture studies, and media or archival studies should be aware of the planned two-course sequence. Both courses may be taken for credit.

0101 -  Matthew Kirschenbaum

Schedule of Classes
Check times and seat availability